Updated: Dec 27, 2021
For a little over 13 centuries pizzelles have had a place in history. When they became a staple of Italian Christmas celebrations or created by the thousands for Italian wedding cookie tables, that I do not know.
As history tells it, pizzelles were believed to be first created in the Italian village of Colcullo, Italy to celebrate the driving out of the snakes to prevent them from overtaking the town. This festival is known as the Festival of the Snakes or the Feast of San Domenico. Once the area was free from snakes, they feasted on pizzelles and celebrated.
Others believe the village of Salle located in Abruzzi, Italy was the first to use pizzelles during the feast of Beato Roberto, a twelfth-century monk. Celebrants would attach the pizzelles to tree branches and parade through the streets with them.
It doesn't seem like the most opulent choice with which to celebrate, but remember centuries ago, if they used anise seeds like we do today, they were purchased on the spice trade routes as anise seeds are indigenous to the southeastern part of China and Vietnam. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is where the saying "worth his weight in salt" originated. Seeds, salts and peppercorns were hot, expensive commodities!
The name pizzelle shares an etymology with the Italian word pizza. Because they're flat? Close. The word is actually derived from the original Greek word Pitta meaning a baked dough that "spread". Pizzelle just means little dough that spreads. (I should have paid more attention in 12th grade Honors English when Mr. Szymkowski was teaching Latin root word meanings).
I used to help my mom, Bernie, make pizzelles when I was a kid-- my first recollection was probably 4 or 5 years old. I believe I was that young because I can remember her telling me I could practice my counting. You see, we had one of the old-fashioned irons that was used on the flame of the stove (see below for types of pizzelle makers). One pizzelle at a time. 60 seconds in total-- 30 on one side, flip, thirty on the other side. The task laborious. For as many times as we made the cookies, they simply did not turn out like Emma Mancini-Litterini's. Was she a Strega Nona? Did she have magical powers that made her pizzelles better than ours? Yes. Yes, she did.
(More on Emma's magical powers later)
Remember I told you about the secret family recipes I would be privy to once I married Dan? Well, that was true with both sides of his family. As a man of 100% Italian heritage, I could be privy to double the secret Italian recipes-from both sides of his family. Double bonus! But for the first ten years...nada! Nothing! Zilch!
One Christmas Eve, ten years...yes... ten years into the marriage, we were opening gifts (a tradition on my Polish side of the family too--almost like double gifts-- Christmas Eve for family gifts, Christmas Day for the "Big Guy's gifts.)
Well, that Christmas Eve I received a rather heavy gift, all wrapped in pretty paper with a ribbon, from my in-laws, Jerry and Louise. Hmmm? What could it be? As it turned out, it was my first and (still) only electric pizzelle maker. Fantastic! I was very excited. Louise told me to look inside. I took the iron out of the box. And inside? Yes, you guessed it, the family pizzelle recipe! (Which turns out was actually Emma's sister Anna's recipe since Louise's family is Calabrese- from southern Italy and probably did not have a family recipe).
Soon after receiving that pizzelle maker and recipe, I dove right in to making these great cookies. I followed the recipe to the letter...blah! Blane. Soft, no snap. Gross.
Beginner's luck was not on my side. Let's try this again.... I added more anise oil.... Yuck! too pungent! What was I doing wrong? I was no Strega Nona, just like my mom. I was determined to figure out what mistakes I was making. I scoured magazines and internet and talked to several people who I knew had great pizzelle recipes. Finally, Joan Stevenson (Dan's cousin on the Mancini side) was kind enough to entertain my million questions. I think I cornered her at a Christmas party long enough where she caved and gave me "Aunt Anna's" recipe. (just kidding—Joan is a wonderful woman who wants to keep her mom’s spirit alive.). FINALLY-- after 13 years of marriage, finally, someone gave me the real recipe. Got home, baked the cookies.... nothing! Blah! Blane. Soft, no snap. Gross. WTF??
After all of that, I felt defeated. However, my hummingbird angel Cindy came to my rescue. She took Aunt Anna's recipe and tweaked it, added a few of this and took out a few of that and told me the Strega Nona secret…the magic. What’s that? You want to know the Strega Nona secret everyone CONVIENTLY forgets to tell you? Well, you'll have to read below to find out!
Whether you have an electric pizzelle maker or the traditional over open flame/stove version, making pizzelles is a time-honored tradition for many families. Every Neen, Nonna, Nunni, or Grandma has recipes that are their own. They should be treasured and looked after by every generation. The recipe below is not the end all, be all, maybe not the one that your family makes, but the interpretation of generations of Italian women who were kind enough to share with me. I hope you have your recipe. Use it. Share it. Keep those loved ones alive. If not, you are welcomed to use this one.
** I understand men also love cooking these pizzelles, but for the sake of my story, I’ve left them out. You are appreciated and loved. And not forgotten.
Cooking Class with Carol
Things to Consider
Follow the Process
Like other cookies, there is a process that should be followed.
sugar and fat (oil)
eggs and extracts (anise oil)
add ins (anise seeds, orange/lemon zest)
sifted dry ingredients (flour, baking powder)
A 'little' R & R (rest and relaxation)
Resting this dough in the refrigerator is not necessary but allowing the batter to relax for 10-20 minutes will help in scooping, rolling and dispersing onto iron.
The Strega Nona Effect
The Strega Nona effect isn't really magic; it's cooking lesson 101--toasting seeds. Regardless of baking or cooking, toasted seeds and nuts give the extra "magic", the extra "what is that flavor?" umami mine and my mother's cookies were missing. Heating the seeds releases the oils inside allowing their very essence to be revealed.
Maybe people think it's common sense, maybe it's strategic Strega Nona magic and you know that great magicians rarely reveal their secret. Well, I want to stop that tradition of forgetting a step or ingredient for the pizzelle-- you want great anise flavored pizzelles, toast your seeds! (Thank you, Cindy for not keeping that from me).
Dirty Dancing with your Anise Seeds
Warmed and toasted anise seeds bring cozy flavors to your kitchen. The aroma wafts through the entire house, sometimes for days. Grind anise seeds in an electric grinder or with a mortar and pestle so you don't get a huge bite of anise seed in your cookie. That could turn you off completely.
Waxed paper is your friend
Once the pizzelles are cool, wrap them in waxed paper. This will allow them to keep their balance of moisture and crispness. I store mine in tin containers or paper bags. Usually, they don't last until Christmas. I'll be making my second batch of 5 dozen on Christmas Eve-eve. (that's two days before Christmas if you were wondering!)
5 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon + 2 teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon anise seeds (toasted)
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
What to do
1. In the bowl of electric stand mixer (or by hand if you want to be old school), cream sugar and oil until thickened.
2. sift flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
2. in a skillet over medium heat, add anise seeds and cook until golden and toasted, about 3-5 minutes. You will be able to smell the fragrance of the seeds as they toast.
3. Add eggs and anise oil
4. Sift together the flour and baking powder, and blend into the batter until smooth.
5. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients until well incorporated.
6. Heat the pizzelle iron, and brush with oil (only once). There is plenty of oil in the batter.
7. Drop about one tablespoon of batter onto each circle on the iron. You may need to experiment with the amount of batter and baking time depending on the iron. I use a 1 oz ice cream scoop.
8. Bake for 30 to 45 seconds, or until steam is no longer coming out of the iron. Carefully remove cookies from the iron. Cool completely before storing in waxed paper in airtight container or tin.